What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a condition where your body temperature drops below 95°F. The normal average body temperature is 98.6°F. It is a myth that hypothermia only happens in very cold temperatures. It can occur above 40°F. Hypothermia is dangerous and life threatening. Most people don’t think they will get it or don’t know they have it until it’s too late. Hypothermia, if left untreated, can result in a heart attack, liver damage, kidney failure, or death.

Frostbite is a related condition. You can have frostbite by itself or with hypothermia, depending on the type. It is an injury you get when a part of your body freezes. Common locations of frostbite are your nose, ears, fingers, and toes. With frostbite, your body parts can be numb, stiff, and/or white or grayish-yellow. The effects can be lasting if the injury is severe, and may result in amputation. However, hypothermia is more serious and requires urgent medical care.

Symptoms of hypothermia

It can be hard to notice the symptoms of hypothermia, especially in elderly people and babies. Warning signs you should look for include:

  • shivering, fumbling hands, and/or decreased movement
  • unclear speech
  • sudden tiredness or low energy
  • memory loss that didn’t exist before
  • cold, red, and/or raw skin, followed by a blue color
  • decreased breathing or heart rate.

What causes hypothermia?

When your internal temperature drops, your body uses stored energy to stay warm. Hypothermia begins when the stored energy is used up and your body can no longer produce heat. There are a few types of this condition with varying causes.

Acute hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops suddenly. You might fall into cold water or be wet in a cold temperature. Hikers, hunters, and homeless people are at risk. So is anyone who is outside for too long and gets stranded in a cold area.

 Chronic hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops over a period of time. Elderly people and babies have a harder time controlling their body temperature. They are at risk of getting hypothermia over time. So are people of low incomes, who can’t get access to heat or enough clothing.

Exhaustion hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops because it is too tired to produce heat. This can affect alcoholics and drug abusers, who struggle to retain heat. People who are sick or have certain health conditions also are at risk.

Perioperative hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops after surgery in a hospital. It can be hard to maintain heat after receiving anesthesia.

How is hypothermia diagnosed?

If a person is displaying known symptoms, take their temperature. A reading of less than 95°F means they could have hypothermia. You should get medical care right away. A doctor will perform a physical exam and will want to know the person’s lifestyle. Additional tests include:

  • Temperature test: To get an accurate reading, test in the ear or rectum.
  • Electrocardiography (EKG): This test uses electric waves to look at your heartbeat and determine if it’s normal or not.
  • Chest X-ray: This test uses radiation to examine your chest and surrounding organs for disease or injuries.
  • Blood test: This test checks for substances in your blood.
  • Computed tomography scan (CT scan): This test uses X-rays to check for internal injuries or other health problems.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): This test uses radio waves to check for other injuries, such as head trauma.

Can hypothermia be prevented or avoided?

You can prevent or avoid most cases of hypothermia. Ways to reduce your risk are:

  • Prepare for cold weather. Warm clothing and hats help to retain heat. Certain items help prevent the effects of wind and water. Wear layers to respond to changing external and internal temperatures.
  • If you get wet, change your clothes and seek a warm, indoor area right away.
  • Keep extra items in your car when traveling, such as clothes, food, and blankets. If you get stranded in your car, call or signal for help right away. Only run the engine/heater for 10 minutes per hour to conserve gas. Also, make sure your exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow. This can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Do not eat snow or drink alcohol because they also lower your body temperatures.
  • In cold temperatures, stay active to help produce body heat and store energy.
  • Keep your heat at home above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. You can close off certain rooms you don’t use to retain heat and save money.
  • Care for babies and elderly people to make sure they are warm, dry, clothed, and fed.

Hypothermia treatment

Seek medical care if you notice someone who has hypothermia. In the meantime, you can treat them in the following ways:

  • Move the person into a warm place as soon as possible.
  • Give the person warm clothing. If their current clothes are wet, remove them.
  • Cover the person with blankets or towels. Use an electric blanket or heating pad, if possible.
  • Skin-to-skin also helps increase the body temperature.
  • Have the person drink warm liquids, like water, tea, or coffee. Do not give them alcohol. Do not give drinks to someone who is not responding.

If the person is not breathing, begin CPR right away to try and revive them.

In a hospital, they may require other treatment. One example is putting warm fluids and/or oxygen into the body. Another example is to flow the person’s blood through an external device to warm it up.

Living with hypothermia

Hypothermia can be cured with little to no lasting effects. People who have severe cases may need ongoing treatment once their body temperature is normal again. They also might have problems to manage, such as alcoholism or thyroid disease.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Do I have a health problem that puts me more at risk of getting hypothermia?
  • What is the first sign of hypothermia?
  • How can I tell the difference between hypothermia and frostbite?